‘You kind of die’: life without power in the Cañada Real, Spain

Little has changed in Europe’s largest shantytown since the UN said the lack of electricity ‘violates children’s rights’ in 2020

Few parts of Europe’s largest shantytown speak quite as plainly of the past 12 months as Luisa Vargas’s sparse, tidy and dim front room.

A thin curtain hangs across a window cut into the wooden wall to admit a little light, the bookshelves bear the sooty scorches of candles, and a wood-burning stove squats near the door, its chimney punching through a damp scab of ceiling. A big TV sits forlorn and powerless, its place usurped by a portable model perched on a child’s chair and powered, in carefully rationed sessions, by a car battery.

In one corner is the small table where Vargas’s eight-year-old son tries to do his homework by the light of a mobile phone. But he finds it hard to concentrate. Like everyone else in sector six of the Cañada Real, which lies half an hour’s drive south-east of Madrid’s city centre, he is struggling to cope with the endless daily frustrations and indignities of living without power for a whole year.

Luisa Vargas (left) in her kitchen where none of the appliances work because she has no electricity.
Luisa Vargas (left) in her kitchen where none of the appliances work because she has no electricity. Photograph: Pablo García/The Guardian

“You kind of die,” says Vargas, a 39-year-old Spanish Roma woman who has lived here with her family for the past 11 years. “You’re cold and you have skin problems. It’s all bad.”

Power to sectors five and six, which make up more than half the length of la Cañada Real’s 14km sprawl – and which are home to 4,500 people – went down at the beginning of October last year. Three months later, Storm Filomena roared in, bringing Spain’s heaviest snowfalls in decades, freezing water pipes and pushing the powerless population of the Cañada to the edge of endurance.

The regional government of Madrid, one of the five authorities that share varying degrees of responsibility for the informal settlement, blames the continuing lack of power on illegal marijuana plantations in the Cañada which, it says, place the electricity network under such huge strain that it shuts itself down for safety reasons.

The power provider, Naturgy, offers its sympathies to the people of sector six, but says “intensive and irregular use” is crashing the network. It also points out that it has only three registered customers in sector six; the rest are “illegal connections”.

Today’s sky may be bright blue and the temperature in the 20s by midday, but the mornings in the Cañada are turning cold, winter is waiting in the wings and the ravages of Filomena are fresh in everyone’s memory.

Little has changed on the ground since last December, when a group of UN experts warned the Spanish government that the lack of electricity “not only violates these children’s right to adequate housing, it is having a very serious effect on their rights to health, food, water, sanitation and education”.

Loubna El Azmani, a community worker with the socio-educational Barró Association who lives with her family in sector six, says existence in the Cañada Real has spun through 180 degrees over the past 12 months.

Loubna El Azmani, a community worker for the NGO Barró that helps women with education
Loubna El Azmani, a community worker for the NGO Barró that helps with education, says the lack of power has coincided with a decline in children’s grades. Photograph: Pablo García/The Guardian

“We’ve had to totally rethink our houses because we can’t use our fridges or ovens,” she says.

“Even in sector six, there are big differences between families; some people have managed to get generators and who have put up solar panels. But there are also people with large families, who are on minimum income and can’t afford anything but candles.

People, she adds, aren’t going through all this because they want to – “they’re going through it all because they have no choice”.

Few in the sector are struggling quite as much as its 1,200 children. Parents say some of their sons and daughters are wetting the bed because they’re too scared to get up to go to the toilet in the dark. Others are worried about being victimised for going to school unwashed and in dirty clothes. Some nurse near-constant colds because of their living conditions. Some are abandoning their studies because of the stigma they carry as a result of where they live; all the talk of marijuana plantations and all the rhetoric about handout-dependent communities has filtered down from adults to their children.

“Education is really important for us, but this year, absenteeism has risen by 70%,” says Azmani.

“Kids are getting bullied – people say things like, ‘Oh look, they’re trying to get everything for free’. We’re seeing a deterioration in the grades they’re getting because they’re just losing the will. They’re suffering.”

Azmani does not deny that there have been marijuana plantations in the Cañada, but she says they provide the authorities with a convenient excuse to demonise and ignore some of the most vulnerable and marginalised people in Spain.

“We’ve been fighting for a year to get the power back: we want to pay for our electricity,” she says. “Why don’t we have that right? We’re 15km from Madrid, so why can’t we have power like a normal neighbourhood?”

Azmani does not understand why the children of the Cañada are being made to pay for the “sins of their parents”. Nor does she believe the authorities would allow a rich Madrid barrio, such as Salamanca, to languish in darkness for a year were drug plantations to be discovered there. But then most of those who live in Salamanca, she hardly needs to add, are not Roma or Moroccan.

Despite the area’s tarnished name – and despite the dealers and the heroin addicts, and the power lines creepered with tapping cables – Azmani is proud to be from la Cañada, which has been home to thousands of families over the past 50 years.

“If people keep going on and on about the bad, where are we going to end up? Sector six is six kilometres long; only one kilometre of that is the illegal stuff. The rest are normal people trying to live. But now there are kids from here who are studying at university and don’t want to tell people where they’re from.”

One of the biggest problems facing the informal settlement is the fact that it falls into many cracks and between multiple stools: the regional government of Madrid, the delegation of the central government to the region, Madrid city hall, and two other nearby municipalities.

The Spanish government has responded to the UN’s pressure by setting up an inter-ministerial working group to oversee the response to the situation in the Cañada. Its delegate to the Madrid region, Mercedes González, says the pact signed by the relevant parties four years ago must be honoured so that all of sector six is demolished within the next three years and its inhabitants accommodated elsewhere.

The regional government and Madrid city hall are working together to find new homes for the people of sector six, but say the task is complicated. To date, 130 families have been rehoused. Over the next two years, they hope to rehouse another 170, which will mean that a third of the 900 families who need new homes will have been provided with new accommodation.

A spokesperson for the Madrid regional government says lessons had been learned from Storm Filomena, and that help will be available to anyone who needs it over the winter.

“We’ve spoken to the relevant councils and any family that has problems over the winter – such as no electricity – will be able access emergency places,” she said. “There will be centres or hotels where they’ll be able to spend a few days. They’ll be open to anyone who needs them.”

Hana Jalloul, a former secretary of state for migration and now an MP for the opposition Socialist party in the Madrid regional parliament, says political differences need to be set aside and the focus fixed firmly on the children.

“We all need to sit down at the table and see how all the authorities can be involved,” says Jalloul. “It all needs to be hand-in-hand and there needs to be a solution – and not a political fight – for the sake of all the families. They’re the priority. The kids here are more important than anything.”

She also suggests that solar panels could be provided to those without power, and tablets given to children – as happened during the pandemic – to ensure they can keep up with their studies.

Some of the Cañada’s older residents, however, have already abandoned hope. Manuela, whose children have grown up and left, and whose husband died last year, spends her days sitting by the side of her road in her widow’s weeds.

One of the neighbours who joins her friend Manuela to spend the day sitting in a chair watching the day go by.
One of the neighbours who joins her friend Manuela to spend the day sitting in a chair watching the day go by as they endure a life without electricity. Photograph: Pablo García/The Guardian

She and a friend, a fellow widow, chat, commiserate and swat away flies as chickens peck through the mounds of brick and concrete that were once homes.

Neither woman is eligible for rehousing and neither knows what will happen when the area is finally demolished.

Manuela says she isn’t asking for a palace or a mansion in La Moraleja, where Madrid’s corporate and footballing aristocracy live and play. Just a roof, a room and a bathroom.

“There’s no electricity here; there’s nothing,” she says. “I live like a dog in the street.”

As winter looms, Luisa Vargas and her family are counting the days until next February, when they have been promised a new home elsewhere in Madrid.

“But that still means we’ll have to spend another winter here,” she says. “We’ve got nowhere else to go. We just have to try to wait it out here. It’ll be freezing and there’s no wood.”

Is there anything she will miss about the Cañada when she finally leaves? Vargas answers the fatuous question with a laugh. “No. Nothing at all.”


Sam Jones in the Cañada Real

The GuardianTramp

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